Beating Information Overload with News Aggregators – Article

[NOTE: This is another in the series of repostings of my previously-published articles. This article, from the fall of 2003, over two years ago, was my effort to explain RSS feeds and news aggregators (or news readers) in plain language and to show why I found them so exciting and, even, a "world-changing" technology. If you still visit this blog on a regular basis, you'll want to read this article to see how you can get the posts on this blog to come to you without you visiting this blog. People describe RSS as a "disruptive" technology and all kinds of other things. But until you "get" the newsreader experience, this is all just theory. Use of RSS feeds and a news reader can dramatically change your everyday experience of the Internet. It's powerful stuff, if it fits the way you use the Internet. It's worth making the experiment.]
Beating Information Overload with News Aggregators
I knew the world had changed the first morning I checked my news aggregator before I checked my e-mail.
We all have our routines for getting our daily dose of information. We might read a newspaper or two. We check our e-mail for messages and newsletters. We have our favorite web sites we check every day. The mail brings magazines, advance sheets and other information resources.
And it all overwhelms us.
“Information overload” is no longer a catchphrase – it is an illness that leaves us with a sense of being overwhelmed and falling further behind. Being a lawyer means that we are definitely in the information business.
I have found a solution that really works. The same tools can work for you.
Let me start with a paradox. The amount of information I now handle on a daily basis has grown dramatically, but the amount of control I feel that I have over that information has increased exponentially. You might be thinking: is he actually going to try to talk me into adopting a new technology that brings me more information? Yes, I am.
I’m also going to try to sell you on a new technology and hardly tell you any details about the underlying technology. Why? Because it’s not about the technology—it’s about how the technology can help you in what you do every day.
Some of you might remember back to a three-month period in the late 1990s when “push” technology was the hottest tech trend going. The idea was that rather than going out to the Internet to find information, we could have information “pushed” to our desktops. Pointcast was a classic example. “Push” was not ready for prime time and it disappeared off the face of the earth.
However, one of the ideas behind “push” – that it is better to receive some information, especially updates and news items, automatically rather than to go out and search for it – continued to be attractive. For the most part, e-mail and e-mail newsletters have since filled the role expected for “push.” Savvy e-mail users could subscribe to relevant newsletters and had friends and colleagues who sent them relevant material off the Internet.
Unfortunately, in the last year or so, the sheer volume of e-mail, spam and the danger of attachments, drastically reduced the effectiveness of e-mail for these purposes. It has become difficult to find relevant material in your inbox.
At the same time, it has become harder to find the information you want on the Internet. When you do find a valuable page, it takes work to keep up with developments on the site. Essentially, you have to remember to visit each page that you want to follow on a regular basis. I’ve tried a variety of techniques, from a “daily” favorites list to “tabbed” browsers to some “automated browsing” techniques. None of them work. The difficulty is that you have to make an ongoing effort to go out to each page.
As a result, I found that I never remembered to check a wide variety of useful sites, especially those of my friends, and I missed all kinds of useful material. I had accepted that as the cost of living in a world of information overload.
Enter newsfeeds and news aggregators. A news aggregator is a software program that automatically retrieves newsfeeds from web pages that supply these feeds. Newsfeeds come in a number of standard formats and are relatively simple items of code that (1) can be retrieved and read by news aggregators and (2) may contain headlines, summaries, excerpts, full text of articles, links or even images. That’s all you really need to know about the underlying technology in order to use it.
What are the benefits and advantages of news aggregators and newsfeeds?

  • I do not have to visit each source site individually. Once I find a site with a feed (and I’ll talk about that below) and “subscribe” to the feed via my aggregator, I get the information the site feeds without taking affirmative steps to visit the site.
  • I can review new information from a large number of sites in a short time.
  • I can sort my feeds into groups categorized by subject matter.
  • I can add and delete feeds easily.
  • Because I receive information via feeds in a highly useful manner, I can deal with information easily and efficiently.

The last point touches on the essence of the usefulness of newsfeeds and news aggregators. With respect to new information, we, and lawyers especially, ideally want to do the following:

  1. Know that the information is there (Alert).
  2. Quickly determine what it is (Headline).
  3. Quickly scan or get the gist of the information (Excerpt or Summary).
  4. Read the full article if we are interested (Full Text).
  5. Deal with the information – typically act on it, move it on, delete it or file it (Take Action).


If we could find a tool that allowed us to take these steps easily, not only would our lives be easier and less overloaded, but we could, in fact, take on and handle more information, especially if, at the same time, we are improving the quality and the relevance of the information we get.
News aggregators give us precisely such a tool.
In my news aggregator (I’m using FeedDemon as my example), I have a number of subject matter folders. In each folder are the feeds (sometimes called channels) that I have affirmatively added to my list of feeds. When my news aggregator updates (either on launch or when I manually trigger it), I will see in the left column a highlighted feed and the number of new items sent out by that feed. When I click on that feed, I see in the middle column the headlines of these feeds, with the unread ones in bold. If I click on a headline, then, in the right column, I will see either a summary provided by the author of the feed, a short excerpt, or the full item, in each case with a hyperlink to the page on the site providing the feed on which the item is located. Today’s news aggregators, for the most, look very much like the Outlook e-mail interface many of us use on a daily basis.
In short, I quickly see the Alert, the Headline, the Excerpt or Summary, and either see or can quickly jump to the Full Text. Therefore, I get four out of the five ideal steps in a matter of seconds, or less, per item, and I take full advantage of my ability to scan quickly. I also have the tools to perform the Action Steps in an efficient manner.
As a result, I have a great deal of control over the information I receive because I can “triage” it very quickly, and move on or go deeper easily and efficiently. If the headline doesn’t affect me, I move on. If the headline interests me, I look at the summary or excerpt. Doesn’t affect or interest me? I move on. If it does, I look at the full text. Then I act on it – bookmark it, delete it, forward it on to a colleague, whatever.
As you will notice, e-mail newsletters, web pages and other approaches, do not give you the benefit of following these five steps so easily. For example, many e-mail newsletters are full text. If you like, as I do, e-mail newsletter that provide a short blurb and a link to the full article, you’ll see the benefit of a news aggregator right away.
We now have access to a rich information environment that brings material to us on a regular basis in a manner we can work with. But what can information can we really get?
It is now time for a brief digression about weblogs or blogs. Newsfeeds and blogs are almost invariably talked about at the same time. Here is all you have to know: A blog does not need a newsfeed and a newsfeed does not have to be connected to a blog. That said, newsfeeds definitely play a major role in the world of blogs and some of the best feeds come from blogs.
You can now get feeds from newspapers, magazines, news networks, headline services and a wide variety of content sources as well as from blogs. If you want to monitor, on a daily basis, a dozen of the most well-known newspapers in the world, you can easily do so. If you want to see headlines on your favorite sport or subject of interest, you can do that. There are now hundreds of law-related feeds.
As a result, you can be more up-to-date, spot trends, see what some of the leading thinkers on a variety of topics are writing, and learn of new developments quickly and easily. I will tell you that you can realistically manage several hundred feeds in less than half an hour in the morning.
How do you get started?
Here is the path I suggest. There are a number of sites that point you to legal blogs with newsfeeds. I’d start at Blawg.org (http://www.blawg.org) and see what is out there and what might interest you. Technorati (http://www.technorati.com) is a good general search tool for blogs and newsfeeds.
Once you get a feel for the information that is available and want to take the next step, check out a news aggregator. There are a number of them and new ones appear regularly. If you ask me today, I would suggest trying NewsGator (http://www.newsgator.com) or Bloglines (http://www.bloglines.com), an online newsreader. There are many newsreaders these days. I generally recommend using Bloglines as an easy way to get started.
\You will gradually learn a number of tricks to locate feeds and there are some helpful resources. However, you will want to start looking on your favorite web sites either for an orange, rectangular button that says “XML”, the phrase “Syndicate this site” or something similar that indicates a newsfeed, an “XML” feed, an “RSS” feed, an “RDF” feed or something along those lines.
Click on that link. You will be taken to a page of code that is all but incomprehensible. That’s OK because all you want is the URL. Copy the URL and go to your news aggregator and following the steps for adding a new feed or channel and paste the URL in the appropriate blank. In some cases, an aggregator may automatically pick up the feed.
From that point on, when your aggregator updates you will get fresh headlines and material from that feed and it will appear in a convenient place with the other feeds you monitor. You never have to go to the website or blog, or the incomprehensible XML page, again, unless you want to. New posts and items will just come to you.
As a result, you will find yourself better informed and more in control of the information tidal wave in which we now live. I have been looking for a tool that will produce these results for many years. News aggregators have dramatically changed the way I deal with information, especially developments that affect my practice, in a manner that is extremely positive, productive, and, I hope, profitable. I definitely encourage you to take a test drive with these new tools and technologies. They will help you where you need it on a daily basis and give you a greater sense of control, and that’s something all of us can use.
[Originally posted on DennisKennedy.Blog (http://www.denniskennedy.com/blog/)]
This post brought to you by Dennis Kennedy’s legal technology consulting services, featuring RSS and advanced blogging consulting and technology committee coaching packages for law firms, corporate legal departments and other professional services providers.